Reign Over Me
2007Director: Mike Binder
Cast: Don Cheadle, Adam Sandler, Jada Pinkett Smith
his time last April, the movie industry’s imminent exploitation of September 11 hit its short-lived stride. With the tragedy’s fifth anniversary fast approaching and easy cash on the mind, studios bankrolled two major movies that dealt frankly with the attacks and their immediate aftermath. And it took just four months after Paul Greengrass’ United 93 alleviated fears of cheap sentiment for Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center to arrive and stomp big empty shoes all over it.
Whatever your opinion of those movies, the media heat they accumulated was really just hot air. The specter of September 11 has haunted the work of filmmakers since directly after the attacks, be it digitally corrected New York City skylines or the tragedy’s implacable social consequences, aired as early as Spike Lee’s somber drama, 25th Hour (2002). Such films accepted the post-September 11 world as a new reality and rarely mentioned the attacks directly, and they may ultimately be the cinema that speaks for them. Both United 93 and World Trade Center underperformed at the North American box office, suggesting that moviegoers prefer to explore the tragedy with contemporary stories rather than return to the day itself.
So where does Mike Binder fit into all this? The Detroit-bred filmmaker, whose biggest hit, the comedy The Upside of Anger, had the inexplicable fortune of swiping some of 2005’s best reviews, writes and directs Reign Over Me with a caution that knows no end. In the film, which features a widower who lost his entire family on one of the planes bound for the World Trade Center—the most salient use of September 11 in a major American movie not directly about that day—the attacks live in the shadows, the forbidden mention of them restricted to references to plane crashes and “those bastards” who perpetrated them. The film’s evasion of the attacks goes to bizarre lengths that suggest Binder avoids them not out of respect or sensitivity but perhaps out of fear.
Fear of what, exactly, is anyone’s guess. The anxious, gloomy New York City of the aforementioned 25th Hour explored many of the same tensions of Reign Over Me, concerns that several other films have deconstructed since. So it’s unclear why Binder would approach September 11 today with such tenuous and unsure footing, especially since we already have graphic depictions of the day itself. What is his worry?
Whatever the case, the attacks ultimately become a superfluous excuse to shove a character into an emotional corner from which Binder has no intention of letting him escape. That character is Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler), and he’s about as pathetic as they come. Wealthy from government settlements and profoundly disturbed by the loss of his family, he reluctantly finds a friend in his old college roommate, Alan, an aimlessly discontent dentist (Don Cheadle) bored at home and belittled at work. The two men excel at playing video games, getting into very public fights and calling each other fags.
They do, to be fair, seem to affect each other a little more than that. Alan stands up to his co-workers when he’s finally given the chance and, in the film’s emotional climax (which conspicuously arrives halfway through), Charlie finally talks about his family. If the film had ended there, with the two old friends finding in each other what they couldn’t elsewhere, it would have at least narrowed its focus to a tender if insubstantial tale of the process of recovery.
It does not, needless to say, and with each new plot development arrives another pointless complication that further dilutes the movie’s raw emotions. Consider, for example, the film’s ideas about Charlie’s mental illness. Yes, this man is unstable, but is it really necessary to have him wave a gun around an intersection and land him in court? The dubious bureaucratic nonsense that follows has nothing to do with the characters and, as far as I can tell, nothing to do with the movie.
And what of the unbalanced sex-addict patient (a wooden Saffron Burrows) Alan encounters, who ultimately becomes some kind of deranged love interest for Charlie? This last development is staggeringly stupid, suggesting that because these people share severe emotional imbalances, they are somehow endeared to each other.
This useless cushion makes up the bulk of Binder’s script, neither getting us any closer to emotional truths about these characters nor providing a distraction from the movie’s curious dance around the September 11 attacks. The film as it stands simply doesn’t make sense, and though the actors submit to this story earnestly, Binder’s clear ambivalence with his material betrays it from the beginning.
Reign Over Me is currently in wide release.